Great Expectations

There is no term in the English language more overrated than “overrated,” and no approach to judging art more corrosive than on the basis of preconceived expectations.

This weekend sees the wide release of Richard Linklater’s new film Before Midnight, which has been riding a wave of critical euphoria since its premiere at Sundance in January.  The movie, starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, is the third in a series that began with Before Sunrise in 1995 and continued with Before Sunset in 2004.

Presumably, most audience members for the new installment have followed it from the start, swept up in the continuing story of Celine and Jesse, the characters played by Delpy and Hawke, whose on-again, off-again relationship is among the most intriguing and unusual of all cinematic couplings.

However, because the word-of-mouth for Before Midnight has been so ecstatic, it stands to reason that a fair number of curious moviegoers heretofore unfamiliar with the saga will wander into art houses showing it, if only to see what all the fuss is about.

My fear is that these late-arrivers will enter the theater with impossibly high expectations, fueled by the film’s near-universal critical acclaim, and exit in a state of profound disappointment.

It is inevitable:  When you are told the movie you are about to experience is the greatest thing since sliced bread, the only possible result is to feel let down—first, because nothing could truly be that good in any case; and second, because the bar has been set at a level that cannot conceivably be met.

The trend is so common and predicable in the American culture, you can set your watch to it:  A movie or TV show accrues a reputation for being unquestionably great, which in a few weeks’ time erodes into a reputation for being over-esteemed, as a second wave of viewers washes out the early enthusiasm of the first.

Speaking with the bias of someone who is often an early adopter of such cursed creative confections, I find it acutely irritating that Americans’ relationship with popular art functions in such a way with such frequency.

For starters, it strikes as profoundly unfair to the artists themselves, who produce the works in question long before the expectations game has been set into motion.  The average author or director often has no idea how his or her work will be judged by the public; the honest ones are simply trying their best to create something worthwhile, and might not even truly care if their audiences don’t like them.

In any case, these finished products ought to be considered with this dynamic in mind.  That is to say, they should be judged on their own merits, rather than being weighed against the opinions of those who happened to see them before you did.

To declare something “overrated” is, after all, nothing more than a critique of other people’s tastes, not a critique of the object itself.  The art is guilty of being liked more than it perhaps should be.  Why should this be the fault of the artist?

Gaze upon the brush strokes of Michelangelo and da Vinci as if six centuries had not passed since those men last roamed the earth.  Read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without your mind clogged by a hundred years’ worth of political correctness and academic canonization.  Watch the first five seasons of Mad Men without reading every last comment on every last goddamned message board, as if some anonymous stranger on the Internet had any more wisdom or taste than you do.

Of course, this is all easier said than done.  Such a feat as viewing a work of art with total objectivity and freshness would require one of two rather herculean feats:  Either draining one’s mind of everything one has ever heard about said work, or not hearing anything about it in the first place.  The former is impossible (or nearly so), and the latter is paradoxical (how could you know to see something of which you are unaware?).

All we can reasonably do is try the best we can to be fair and open-minded, which requires the much more modest task of not taking other people’s opinions too seriously, tuning out the prevailing view about a particular piece of pop art until one has digested it for oneself.

And if you have the chance, be sure to catch Before Midnight.  It is an extraordinary movie, and I know you’ll just love it.

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